On this day in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed and the door to the United States of America opened even wider. Nobler pens than mine have graced this event with prose, but I think it is worthwhile to reflect that however impossible the American Dream might seem to us today, it seemed a great deal less plausible to the Founding Fathers then. I defer to John Adams, who penned the following letter (shown here in part) to his wife, Abigail, describing the tumultuous events he helped orchestrate.
Adams’s view that July 2 would be a day of celebration ever after proved to be in error, but his other analysis is striking for being both prophetic and—238 years out—relevant.
Yesterday, the greatest question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater, perhaps, never was nor will be decided among men. A resolution was passed without one dissenting colony, “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, and as such they have, and of right ought to have, full power to make war, conclude peace, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which other States may rightfully do.” You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the causes which have impelled us to this mighty revolution, and the reasons which will justify it in the sight of God and man. A plan of confederation will be taken up in a few days.
When I look back to the year 1761, and recollect the argument concerning writs of assistance in the superior court, which I have hitherto considered as the commencement of this controversy between Great Britain and America, and run through the whole period, from that time to this, and recollect the series of political events, the chain of causes and effects, I am surprised at the suddenness as well as greatness of this revolution. Britain has been filled with folly, and America with wisdom. At least, this is my judgment. Time must determine. It is the will of Heaven that the two countries should be sundered forever. It may be the will of Heaven that America shall suffer calamities still more wasting, and distresses yet more dreadful. If this is to be the case, it will have the good effect at least. It will inspire us with many virtues, which we have not, and correct many errors, follies and vices which duces refinement, in States as well as individuals. And the new governments we are assuming in every part will require a purification from our vices, and an augmentation of our virtues, or they will be no blessings. The people will have unbounded power, and the people are extremely addicted to corruption and venality, as well as the great. But I must submit all my hopes and fears to an overruling Providence, in which, unfashionable as the faith may be, I firmly believe. . . . .
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore.
You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil, and blood, and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that posterity will triumph in that day’s transaction, even although we should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not.
Given the uproar over certain recent Supreme Court cases, Adams’s assertion that trust in Providence was, in 1776, “unfashionable,” is diverting and, in a strange way, comforting. Likewise, there is comfort in the fact that Adams’s “rays of ravishing light and glory,” which would certainly be sentimental in any setting less worthy of them, have had 238 years to shine through both gloomier times and brighter moments than he could have anticipated. Amid, or perhaps because of, government shutdowns, foreign entanglements, and scandal-ridden elections, July 4, 2014, will yet be solemnized with “guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other.”